HELENA — Montana candidates for political office are barred from distributing unsolicited campaign material to public employees’ email addresses, the state commissioner of political practices said Wednesday.
The decision, which amounts to a new rule by Commissioner Jonathan Motl, was included in a dismissal of a campaign practices complaint filed against Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte. The ruling draws a distinction between campaigns using lists and databases to target public workers’ addresses and those that send limited or accidental mailings to public employees, which is allowed.
Motl dismissed the complaint against Gianforte because that distinction had not been made prior to Wednesday’s ruling. However, he told the Gianforte campaign to remove public employee work addresses from his campaign mailing lists and warned all candidates against sending campaign messages to such addresses in the future.
Gianforte spokesman Aaron Flint said the campaign has started purging its lists.
“Per the dismissal, we’ve already begun taking the steps to comply with the decision,” he said.
Gianforte’s campaign used work addresses included in a Montana Association of Counties directory to send a message to county officials across Montana asking them to join his team. One of the recipients, Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Coroner Gerald Thomas, filed a campaign practices complaint alleging that the Gianforte campaign had used state resources to send the email.
Campaign officials responded that the email had come from a private service. Thomas’ complaint did not raise the question that Motl ultimately addressed in his ruling: Whether a candidate can legally mail campaign material to public employees using their work addresses.
Motl said the answer is no, unless the public worker asks for it.
“Political activity can’t follow them into the workplace unless they want it there,” he said.
The deliberate, systemic use of public employees’ work addresses for campaigning amounts to coercion under Montana law, the ruling said. If the practice were allowed, all candidates would be able to target public workers’ emails, including incumbents who may be in a position of authority over the workers.
“One of the 2016 candidates for Montana Governor is the sitting Governor who is seeking re-election,” the decision said. “It would be jarring indeed for public employees to awaken to a campaign mailing at their work mailing addresses from a sitting public official.”
The Montana Association of Counties’ County Officials Directory contains the addresses of several hundred elected officials, from county commissioners to sheriffs, said MACO executive director Harold Blattie.
A printed copy of the directory costs $15. Blattie said he gave Gianforte a copy last year, as he would any other candidate or official who has legitimate business reasons for wanting to contact the people in the directory.
“What he did after that was his own business,” Blattie said.
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